The first thing an interpreter needs to do is to examine the text under consideration in order to establish the text. We call this the work of Textual Criticism.
Next, the interpreter must read the work. This involves understanding the correct phrasing of the text, and if necessary making decisions about appropriate breaks in words and phrases.
Third, the interpreter should move to analysis of the text at the level of grammar. They should explain the meaning of any difficult words, whether because they are rare, have heightened significance, or contain an ambiguity that must be discussed. They should also discuss the technical elements of grammar, illuminating any difficult constructions or explaining their sense. If the text is poetic, they should likewise give an account of its metrical features; if prose, they may give an account of elements of genre and discourse.
At this stage the interpreter may also relate the text to any historical issues, debating its relation with other historical texts, intertextuality, archaeology, and other findings of the scientific disciplines that may bear on our understanding of the text. They should also explain at the textual level the functioning of figures and tropes.
The last stage of the interpreter’s work is interpretation proper. Here they will explain not merely the meaning of the text, but its significance. What is the author’s purpose, how does the text function for its original audience, how has the text been understood and utilised since, how is it reframed in a canonical context, what is its theological significance, what does it teach us about God, Christ, and the history of salvation, how may believers today understand and appropriate it.
Does this sound like a reasonable description of, say, contemporary historico-grammatical exegesis? Because the outline I have just written is pretty much the template of literary studies in Late Antiquity. It’s what someone like Dionysius Thrax discusses briefly in his “Grammar”. It’s the methodology of that too-easily dismissed theologian, Origen. It’s a description that applies equally well to the so-called ‘Antiochene’ and ‘Alexandrian’ traditions.
I’m going to have a bit more to say on this shortly, but I am tossing around a few ideas at the moment. One is that a large chunk of what is being called ‘Nicene Culture’ is in fact just standard Late Antique literary studies, and what makes it Nicene is not as expansive as we sometimes take it for. Another is that the real difference between interpretative ‘schools’, ancient and modern, has very little to do with most of the above elements, and rather has to do with the area of interpretation of figures, tropes, and non-literal referents. More on this in a forthcoming post.